This is the first post in a series on immorality. Posting on this topic will continue every day this week.
Whenever my boyfriend and I are walking in New Haven, he always gives something to any homeless person we come across. He stops and talks to the people we run into, apologizes if he’s not carrying cash, and tries to make it up to them later.
I never do. I believe that I do more good in giving to organizations than individuals, especially when those organizations can focus both on short term relief and on longer term solutions like job training and mental health counseling, if necessary. I certainly don’t have enough information to figure out how to best apportion the money I have on my own, and I doubt that many of the homeless have enough information to make the choices they would prefer to make if they were fully informed unless they are working with an advocacy group.
On net, I think that my contributions do more good per dollar than those of my boyfriend, but I’m still pretty sure there’s something important I’m missing.
I am training myself to not be bothered too much when I see people in need of help. Even if I’m making the best decision for everyone involved, it doesn’t change the fact that my thinking on charity and kindness changes from service offered to another person to an economic calculation I make on my own.
I honestly don’t know the extent to which, in this constant, willful ignoring of suffering will diminish my desire to donate to causes supporting homelessness or will make it easier to discount my own power to help others in broader cases.
There are times when I’ve been less shut off from the needs of others, but my ability to be useful is usually diminished, since I have trouble not giving into despair. When I was taking a class on geopolitics at summer camp, we watched a documentary on the Rwanda genocide and President Clinton’s decision not to get involved. My classmates and I spent the next hour or so huddled together on the floor, bawling our eyes out.
While overwhelmed by grief, we were not doing anything to relieve suffering in Rwanda. And although my knowledge of Rwanda did spur me to engage in activism against the genocide in Darfur, I still haven’t made anti-genocide activism my central focus. And I’m certainly not aware of the suffering in Darfur in the same acute, painful way as I briefly was of the suffering in Rwanda.
Ultimately, I believe both that some level of disassociation from the needs of others is necessary to function, but I also believe that the process of desensitization to the suffering of others is what opens me up to sin. The price of my ability to live is an endless assault on my sensitivity to suffering and my awareness of a duty to relieve it. There may be ways to combat this insensitivity, but no matter the effort made, I can’t help but see humanity as intrinsically flawed, endlessly falling short of the glory of… something.
The series on sinfulness will continue every day this week.